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Establishment of the Kunstkamera in 1714

Historians continuously debate the exact date when the first Russian museum, the Kunstkamera, was founded. A written document announcing its establishment was never discovered in the archives. J. D. Schumacher, who was in charge of the museum for the first 47 years, named 1714 the year the museum was organized. In his book, Chambers of the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences, the Library, and the Kunstkamera (Russian edition 1744), Schumacher wrote, “The library and the Kunstkamera were founded in 1714; in 1724, they became affiliated with the Academy of Sciences.”

Contemporary scholars concur with Schumacher’s view: 1714 was the year when Peter I moved his collections, his library, and the natural history collections of the Apothecary Chancery from Moscow to St. Petersburg. The collections and the library were stored temporarily in Peter’s Summer Palace. It was also the year when Peter I tasked his chief physician, Doctor of Medicine Robert Erskine, with supervision over the Kunstkamera and the library. That same year, Schumacher came to Russia and accepted the Secretary of Foreign Correspondence job at the Apothecary (later: Medical) Chancery as a subordinate to Erskine. Schumacher undertook the duties of a librarian, organizing books and natural specimens in the Summer Palace. Furthermore, the authors of museum catalogs and guides of the 18th century, Jean Vollrath Bacmeister and Osip Beliayev, named 1714 as the date for establishing the Kunstkamera.

As mentioned earlier, Schumacher’s Chambers of the St. Petersburg Imperial Academy of Sciences sheds light on the composition and size of the early collections and the library. Schumacher wrote, The Kunstkamera had small beginnings, but it gradually expanded and multiplied. In 1714, it comprised a few hundred jars filled with preserved fishes, birds, and reptiles, as well as anatomical specimens, which Peter the Great had bought in Holland during his trip in 1698. In 1716, Albert Seba’s magnificent collection of four-footed animals, birds, snakes, lizards, shells, and other natural objects from East and West Indies and Doctor Gottwald’s mineral cabinet from Gdansk arrived. In 1717, a collection of anatomic objects, botanical samples, and butterflies by the famous doctor Ruysch came from Holland. In 1721, gold and, in part, silver, ancient, and new medals were bought in Hamburg from Lüders’s münz-cabinet, and many physical and mathematical instruments were bought from Musschenbroek. All sorts of antique and rare things worth watching were purchased from Messier Chevalier’s office. In 1725, Peter the Great donated to the Kunstkamera his very own cabinet of natural objects, treasured instruments, and machines, which His Imperial Majesty had been collecting for many years.”

The museum’s creation was part of the plan for the construction of a new capital of the Russian Empire, Saint Petersburg, a city of European type. St. Petersburg’s main city-forming functions were fortification, shipbuilding, trade, and the ensembles of palaces and governmental buildings. In Peter the Great’s view, both the museum and the Academy of Sciences were to occupy the city’s center. When the city was being built, Peter I lived in a small log house not far away from the Peter and Paul fortress erected for him in only three days in May 1703. It was impossible to bring his collections and the library there. However, when in 1714, Peter moved to the stone Summer Palace on the bank of the Fontanka River, he ordered to move his collection, and the objects held at the Apothecary Chancery in Moscow to the Summer Palace and placed them in the Green Study room. Still, the artifacts crammed in palace premises could not be shown to the general public and needed a different space. In 1718, the collections were moved to the house of a disgraced boyar Alexander Kikin, the Kikin Palace. Kikin was implicated in the conspiracy of Tsarevich Alexei and was executed. The Treasury confiscated his stone palace, one of the first in the city. Peter I ordered to accommodate the mansion for the Kunstkamera and the library. Also, in 1718, the tsar ordered the construction of a special building for the Kunstkamera at the spit of Vasilievsky Island. Until completing the construction works in 1728, the Kunstkamera operated and received visitors in the Kikin Palace.